Friday January 17 2014

An African police alliance undermines democracy

By Samuel Baligidde

During the recent East African regional police chiefs’ conference ostensibly held “in the light of the challenges of the Arab Spring”, a proposal for a joint police force for Africa was made. African police cooperation would not be a bad idea but considering the belligerent culture of African international relations cooperation among today’s friends and among tomorrow’s potential rivals, might create more serious challenges in the future. Security cooperation is usually understood as collaboration between conflictuous parties.

If international relations are the kind of anarchy perceived by Thomas Hobbes wherein conflict is possible between state actors or, as he cryptically put it, “a state of war of every man against every man”, then a police alliance can become problematic. An alliance may end up in less security arising from partial loss of sovereignty. When one looks at the potential partners as tomorrow’s enemies, latent conflict is not difficult to detect.

An African police alliance implies an essential mutual objective; regime survival, monitoring the intentions and activities of transnational criminals, which is a defendable idea but hard to reconcile with the notion of security being guaranteed by collective policing. Security cooperation entails some loss of freedom of action.

It involves some limitation on a country’s ability to accumulate as much police resources as one can afford, which President Museveni recognised might be a hindrance; it involves sacrificing options. Enhanced transparency could lead to reduced chances of achieving surprise, a premium value in strategic security practices. During times of violence, as has happened in CAR and South Sudan, depending on someone else is tricky.
Alliances are usually much more relaxed during peacetime but may be hardly more than token promises that could be broken in the first second of the hour of truth when friend becomes foe! Even Idi Amin, a man who suffered the injustice of being perceived as being totally illiterate, knew that in international relations there are neither permanent friends nor foes!

The kind of police organisation being touted may entail intimate structural cooperation or integration, which might undermine national security. The degree of mutual knowledge, transparency and dependence required is breathtaking from the perspective of hostilities in the future. If there is a puzzle to be solved in explaining the need for collective policing now, it concerns such alliances. When a former enemy suddenly mutates into a security partner, memories of past hostilities do not disappear entirely or at once. The risk of reversal looms. Personal animosities and grievances overlap with genuine concerns over hidden agendas and the like.

The states belonging to a collective security system promise to come to the aid of each other if one of them is under a security threat. But as the inadvertent hint by President Museveni about police equipment, which was lent to some country when it had challenges verifies, cooperation has been in existence and continues to exist under Interpol and within the region. What new benefits will this new arrangement add?

As Mr Museveni observed, security cooperation does not come cost-free! The states opting for a wider police alliance will have to sacrifice some security assets to gain higher security by obtaining other assets that will help them provide for their own security better. How they will develop interests, interpretations and perceptions that permit them to jump into such a supranational security organisation that is more beneficial than already exists is debatable.

Mr Baligidde is a former diplomat.